NBC's 'Working It Out' works as season's best new comedy

Television

November 22, 1990|By MIchael Hill | MIchael Hill,Evening Sun Staff

Compared to so many producers of television shows who are sockless Gucci loafers and $100 haircuts, exuding a look-at-me, I'm-rich-and-famous attitude, Bill Persky comes across as a lunch bucket, workingman's sort of character.

Which is not to say he's not rich. You don't create and produce a show such as "Kate & Allie" without putting a few bucks in the bank. Persky is as bi-coastal and well-coiffed as you would expect.

But it is to say that in his comedic attitude, there is not the show-offy, funniest-guy-in-class persona, but instead the on-target observations of a veteran of this business.

It's a no-nonsense approach that has a lot to do with why Persky is glad that his new show for NBC, "Working It Out," like "Kate & Allie," is being produced in New York.

"The night you tape a show in Los Angeles is a big event," Persky said recently. "The network guys are there, friends are there, everyone is enjoying the scene. It's a weekly ritual. It's not that way here."

Indeed, as Persky spoke, the control room of the studios, the nondescript building on W. 27th Street in New York that houses the "Working It Out" production, was quickly emptying out after a Friday night taping.

It wouldn't have been that way in Hollywood. After a taping there, scores of people hang around late into the night, scarfing up the post-show feed, gloming onto the stars, looking for parties and dinners that would continue the scene into the wee hours.

"In this town, show business is not a whole way of life," Persky said. "It just means you have a job to do on a show. And everyone is glad of it. Nobody takes anything for granted."

Persky said that living in New York brings variety into the life of everyone on the show -- they can't isolate themselves in the show biz world -- and that this brings a creative energy that's too often absent on the West Coast.

"Working It Out," which airs Saturday nights at 8:30 on Channel 2 (WMAR), reunites Persky and Jane Curtin of "Kate & Allie." She plays Sarah Marshall, co-starring with Stephen Collins who is David Stuart. Both are around 40, divorced, parents.

They meet in an Italian cooking class -- whose members continue to form the Greek chorus for their relationship -- and proceed to fall in love, their relationship hitting, on a weekly basis, many of the potholes and pratfalls those in their situation would encounter.

Persky has constructed the show so that what you see of their relationship comes from the on-going conversation each has with a best friend, hers played by Mary Beth Hurt, his by David Garrison. It provides a way of looking at a relationship from various angles with the liberty to spin off into fantasies and dream sequences.

The comedy rarely relies on gags, but comes from understandable embarrassments, all-too-true traumas, and sometimes devastating insights. Clearly the work of a master craftsman, "Working It Out" has emerged as the best new comedy of the season.

"I think he is just fascinated by what brings people together," Curtin said of Persky. "Why relationships work. He's always wondering about that, asking those questions."

"It's essentially the same character as Jane played in 'Kate & Allie,'" Persky said. "She's at a different stage of her life."

Indeed, you could trace Sarah Marshall back even further, to Persky's work as one of the top writers of "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Allie might have been what happened to Laura Petrie after Rob walked out on her. Sarah is her as she's starting to fall in love again.

Along the way, Persky has developed his own approach to writing sitcoms, again one that flourishes in the skyscraper canyons of New York instead of the tropical breezes of Los Angeles.

Persky doesn't believe in the conventional wisdom that a weekly comedy requires teams of writers and producers to work 20-hour days, seven days a week, writing and rewriting every scene, every sentence, every word.

"When you do that, you certainly make it different," he said. "I'm just not sure you make it any better.

"I remember once on 'Dick Van Dyke,' and that was a well-run show, we sat around for an hour and a half trying to come up with the right joke for a scene. Then someone turned the page, read the next one, and said, 'How about this one right here?' And everyone said, 'Oh, yeah, that's fine.'

"In fact, on this show we're getting everything down so I think we can go from a five-day-a-week production schedule to a four-day one."

Again, it's a matter of attitude, of doing the job and doing it right and not worrying if you're spending as many hours on rewrites as the guys on "Night Court."

And that attitude shows up in "Working It Out," which never prances and preens on your screen, saying, "Look at me!" but instead goes about its business in the same way Persky does in conversation, delivering subtle insights and on-target observations that make you laugh and look at yourself.

Michael Hill is the television critic for The Evening Sun.

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